Asking the right questions

Student in USP computer lab, Solomon Islands (ADB/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Student in USP computer lab, Solomon Islands (ADB/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It is no secret that I am critical of the current government’s aid policy. I have criticised both its size and its shape.

I have also been ready to tell anyone who will listen that I do not agree with the idea of an innovationXchange.

In public policy, I don’t accept that innovation is a discrete skill but rather believe it is one that should be shared agency-wide. Everyone should be examining innovative ways of achieving the goals of the program.

Nevertheless, there have been some recent initiatives attributed to the innovationXchange which are pointing in very interesting directions.

If you believe, as I do, that the first step towards finding interesting answers is finding the right questions to ask, these two proposals are well on their way.

I am referring to the joint project with Bloomberg Philanthropies to radically reform the character and quality of health data, and the joint proposal with MIT to address issues of job displacement and the skills gap as technology changes.

Bloomberg Philanthropies described the joint initiative as an attempt “to collect and use data to prioritize health challenges, develop policies, deploy resources and measure success.”

It has been known for years that poor or non-existent data prevents informed decisions on priorities and resource allocation. Whether this proposal achieves all it sets out to do or not, it is confronting the important challenge: if we improve the quality and quantity of data available, will we improve health outcomes?

That is a question worth asking.

MIT described the objectives of their program as follows: “to unearth and support innovative solutions to guarantee disadvantaged young people under 24 from low socio-economic backgrounds… are equipped with 21st century skills and prepared for the workforce of the future.” The DFAT contribution to this project will encourage efforts to address the needs of women and girls and people with a disability.

The attraction of both these proposals is that they look to a world where new technologies create new opportunities but also confront the poor with new challenges.

The health data initiative is an example of attempting to use the power of new technologies to improve the life chances of the poorest. This is important because the great risk is that the technological divide will reinforce the trend towards greater inequality, which is one of the dominant features of the 21st century world.

This is also the significance of the job displacement project.

Without targeted interventions, the new jobs which are created will be likely to go to a very different cohort to those who will be displaced by the inevitable changes.

The key question is: can we find concrete steps which will mean that those from disadvantaged backgrounds can compete in the rapidly changing employment market generated by the ever-increasing rate of technological change?

I am not confident that either of the proposals will achieve their ambitious goals. However, that is not an argument against the attempt.

If you are not prepared to fail occasionally you will not do anything new.

New challenges require new solutions.

These attempts should be supported.

They may come within an emaciated program and arise from the efforts of an unnecessary “exchange”, but they are asking the right questions. The answers they find will be important steps along the road to a better life for the most disadvantaged in developing countries around the world.

Bob McMullan is a Visiting Fellow at the Development Policy Centre.

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Bob McMullan

Bob McMullan has had a long and distinguished career in the Australian Parliament as one of Australia’s pre-eminent Labor politicians. He is a former Parliamentary Secretary for International Development (2007-2010) and Executive Director for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.


  • Bob, I’m with Ash on this one. That Bloomburg Data for Health initiative was one of the Innovation Exchange’s first, and was announced more than two years ago. I challenge anyone to find any progress report in relation to it. Even though we’ve just decided to give them another $4 million! There is nothing on actual progress on the Innovation Exchange website, and the Bloomburg website is written entirely in the future tense.

    What little there is about the project in the public domain certainly sets my alarm bells ringing. $100 million sounds like a lot, but over 4 years and 20 countries, that’s about 1 million per year per country. That’s enough for a couple of workshops, a few pilots and some study tours, and I fear that there is little more to the Bloomberg initiative than that. I really wonder what sustainable impact this project will have, especially in a country like PNG, one of the 20.

    One of the problems with the Innovation Exchange is that it seems to be authorized to fund projects but not required to report on their progress. Its website is heavy on photos and light on reports. It’s all very well to ask questions, but there comes a point when you have to report the answer you’ve found.

  • Bob, I agree that some of the initiatives from the iXc sound really positive and are looking at important questions, even though I am a bit skeptical of whether something like this could really influence the wider risk-averse DFAT culture particularly in a time of a constrained aid budget. But after several years now, we really aren’t hearing anything much about outcomes, or pilots, or anything tangible from iXc (to do with aid and development in particular… e-passports are not a development initiative). It was part of the same aid policy announcement where the Foreign Minister decreed she would be tough on aid performance, and that if programs weren’t working they would be axed, so there’s a bit of an irony in how little is being said in terms of tangible outcomes from this. I don’t agree with that way of thinking on aid performance (and it hasn’t really happened anyway thankfully), and I’m certainly not saying that enough time has passed to really judge iXc as obviously there was set-up time etc etc, but it would be good if they actually communicated what they are doing – not just what they are thinking about doing. On the website there’s a few blog entries about things but not much else that is clear about the translation from innovation and ideas to development on the ground. It would be good if it was a bigger resource for learning in this relatively new space i.e. public reporting and updates on how things are going, particularly noting the challenges. There’s lots of ideas in development, the devil is in the detail and the implementation.

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